Wick Communications

Preparing for the worst

In journalism on September 10, 2010 at 9:45 am

Recently, some of the Wick Louisiana papers commemorated the fifth anniversary of Katrina. And tomorrow, of course, is the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Hardly seems possible that it can be that long ago.

Those two anniversaries — and last night’s movie-set-like fire just up the road from me in San Bruno, Calif. — got me thinking about reporting through crisis.

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time planning for some amorphous calamity that may or may not happen in my lifetime. Here in California, authorities are constantly harping on creating an earthquake kit. And I know I should. I usually have most of the items lying around the house, but I don’t really have an earthquake kit, per se.

This post isn’t about forethought, though. It’s about reacting rationally in the midst of such extreme events. If you can’t make yourself prepare for the worst, you better be prepared to give your best when the worst happens.

There are lots of legends about newsroom leaders taking charge in the chaos of a big story. I have heard several times how Susan Goldberg, now the top editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, jumped on top of her desk at the San Jose Mercury-News to lead coverage following a devastating earthquake in 1989. Her leadership in a moment of crisis helped the newspaper earn a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the quake…

If you work in news long enough, there will come a time, as with Katrina and Sept. 11, when it seems things are happening too fast to keep up with them. It may seem that everyone around you is panicking. It’s at times like these that leaders like Goldberg emerge.

I found an excellent series of tips on covering disaster at the Dart Center for Journalists and Trauma Web site. They are collected by Joe Hight, who is now director of information and development at The Oklahoman newspaper. As the former managing editor there, he is a man who has covered his share of calamity. (The Dart Center is a function of the Journalism School at Columbia University and offers some excellent information about breaking bad news to people, about interviewing trauma victims and other relevant things.)

I particularly like Joe’s “team” approach to the different aspects of the disaster. I would add that you should keep in mind that most of these stories continue for days. You may not want all hands on deck the first day and night because the troops will be depleted by Day 3.

I hope you will take a moment this weekend, as you reflect on Sept. 11, to consider how you would have responded if you were in a New York City newsroom that morning.

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